Missing Comma: Harm Reduction Meets Ethical Ambiguity

So there are at least two student newspapers on the UC Santa Barbara campus: The Daily Nexus, and The Bottom Line. One paper, the Nexus, has had nearly wall-to-wall coverage of the Isla Vista shooting that happened last Friday. By all accounts, Nexus editor-in-chief Marissa Wenzke was one of the first journalists on the scene, period – and she immediately began dispatching reporters out. The Bottom Line, on the other hand, has not. And they apparently have decided against extensively covering the shooting – which has become a national story and one of the biggest sources of debate this year – deliberately. 

On May 25, The Bottom Line published an op-ed from a former Executive Content Editor, Hannah Davey, who explained that the reason there was a paucity of stories on the shooting at her former paper was that the paper wanted to reduce harm to their reporters.

Whenever tragedy strikes, emergency responders and journalists are some of the first on scene and are, consequently, more likely to suffer from emotional trauma because of it. As stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a code we at The Bottom Line strive to uphold every day in our reporting, we are to minimize harm, whether physical or emotional. Ethical “journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

After extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni, we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists. Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos and feel we need our time to mourn, process and recover from this senseless violence.

To put it lightly, this irked a few journalists. Erik Wemple, the media critic at The Washington Post, wrote of the original op-ed, “The op-ed from Davey notes that the decision to bag publishing on a gigantic story came after ‘extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni…’ In those extensive discussions, these folks presumably engaged in philosophical exchanges on mourning and recovery, when a better focus would have been: How fast can we generate updates on this rampage? (emphasis Wemple’s)”

As an observer to a few tragedies where the news coverage was originally botched, I can understand – from a certain perspective – wanting to hold off on writing about something like this. If only to get to the closest possible version of the truth, I am for quality and not quantity. However, The Bottom Line‘s competitor, the Nexus, has a startling amount of well-crafted and thoughtful pieces on the Isla Vista shooting.

To be perfectly blunt, the student reporters on The Bottom Line appear to have been done a disservice by their editors and their adviser. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to learn how to report on tragedy, someone apparently decided that what their reporters needed most was a day off. 

Oh, and let’s talk about what the Society of Professional Journalists says about harm reduction:

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should: — Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Rather than apply this code to their reporting, Davey’s op-ed made it seem like The Bottom Line applied this to themselves and themselves alone.

The Bottom Line Editorial Board tacked on a correction to Davey’s op-ed on Wednesday. They said:

The Op-Ed that TBL published on May 25, 2014, “Op-Ed: Why We Have Not Yet Published Anything on the Isla Vista Shooting,” was written by a previous Executive Content Editor, and was approved to be posted by a few members of our current editorial board, but without consultation with our advisor and the majority of the editorial board. In a mentally and emotionally compromised state, the editors directly involved in the publication of the Op-Ed misjudged the situation. Even though said piece is an Op-Ed, we effectively allowed someone who is not currently involved with TBL to speak for us and define our coverage of the Isla Vista tragedy.

The Op-Ed states that “we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists.” Although minimizing harm to our staff and community contributed to our decision, it was not the main factor. We decided it would be best to gather all the necessary facts to report on such a grave and tragic incident, rather than rush to publication and print misinformation. This does not mean that our reporters and photographers refused to or chose not to cover the events of May 23. Our staff has been reporting, interviewing, and photographing since Friday night in preparation for an online story published Monday and our regular print issue on Wednesday. Additionally, we have been covering the incident through our Twitter account, providing accurate live updates of the events.

We pride ourselves on factual and accurate reporting, not sensationalism and fear-mongering. We, as a news organization, do not want to contribute to the panic by exploiting the grief of our fellow community members. We serve our community first, and we took the steps that we thought were necessary to best serve that community. Our primary audience is UCSB and Isla Vista, who were rocked by a tragic event and have experienced a severe loss. We did not think it journalistically ethical to harass our community in its time of grief and shock, and decided to hold off premature publication of an article so that we did not hurt anyone through misinformation.

This is… better than the reasons given in the previous op-ed. Still not great, and still hinting at a disservice done to the student journalists, but better.

It should be noted that The Bottom Line is associated with UCSB’s Associated Student Body. The Daily Nexus is an independently-run paper with no adviser. Marissa Wenzke, the now-former Editor of the Nexus, posted this in the comment thread of another Washington Post article on The Bottom Line‘s coverage:

A student paper is comparable to a media outlet because, well, it is a media outlet. We have no faculty adviser and we get along just fine. Student journalists are journalists – if they want to be.

I’m thankful to be alive*, and when I was reporting, it was for my friends and classmates who were waiting on information all that night, waiting on updates to see if their loved ones were okay, and waiting to find out what exactly happened that night.

*According to an LA Times article on the Nexus’s reporting, Wenzke was in an apartment on the adjacent street to where the shooting happened.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory